From Nascent Insurrections to Full-Blown Insurgencies: Why Some Militant Groups Engage in Sustained Armed Conflicts

The following post summarizes findings from NPSIA Ph.D. Candidate Michael Shkolnik’s latest research paper.

In October 2014, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis conducted a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack targeting two Egyptian military positions and killing 31 soldiers. A month later, that group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, escalating violence and solidifying itself as an unprecedented threat to Egyptian national security. The dramatic and rapid rise of the Islamic State group and its affiliates shocked many observers around the world. By waging a successful military campaign in 2014, the militant organization was able to gain control of significant territory in Syria and Iraq, consolidate new power bases in the region, attract an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, and coordinate large-scale attacks around the world. Now, as the group loses its core territorial stronghold, observers are concerned about the potential emergence and escalation of other terrorist insurgencies around the world.

Data on terrorism and civil wars point to a sharp increase in militant activity worldwide in recent years – both in terms of casualties from terrorist attacks and battle-related deaths during armed conflicts. It is puzzling why some initially weak militant groups, who face immense difficulties in garnering material resources and support, are able to eventually engage in sustained violent operations and confront more powerful militaries. Most militant groups fail to survive beyond their first year, let alone pose a serious threat. Why do some militant groups engage in sustained armed conflicts while other groups do not?

In a recent paper, I conduct quantitative regression analysis on 246 prominent militant groups from 1970-2007 and find that, on average, organizational characteristics are better predictors of sustained armed conflict than measures of group capabilities. Some of my core findings diverge from current explanations of insurgency onset or outcomes. Posing a serious challenge to a state is not necessarily a function of how powerful or capable a group may seem – it’s more about the competitive militant environment and internal organizational capacity to effectively mobilize resources and maintain armed hostilities against regime forces. Three particular factors of importance emerged from my analysis: group ideology, organizational structure, and competitive militant environment.

Militant Group Ideology

Exploiting or fueling grievances among a particular population is critical for groups to mobilize for an insurgency. Some militant groups should be more capable of capitalizing on grievances than others – particularly religious and ethno-nationalist groups that can draw on resources from a well-defined constituency. Religiously motivated groups, in particular, tend to be more lethal and maintain indivisible objectives, making negotiated settlements improbable. These types of organizations are also better at overcoming key militant organizational hurdles: collective action and principal-agent problems. Religious groups are often in a stronger position to effectively screen recruits and mobilize resources via their robust social networks compared to more secular rivals. This is one explanation behind why Hamas was better at managing its operatives than its more secular rival Fatah. Religious groups rarely achieve their ultimate objectives. But my research suggests that those religiously motivated militant groups are far more likely to engage in sustained armed conflicts than other ideologically oriented groups – whether they are ultimately successful or not.

Organizational Structure

Research on social movements and militant group structures suggests that centralized and formally structured groups are more likely to achieve broader objectives than more decentralized groups. Militant groups with hierarchical structures tend to be more lethal and have a higher likelihood of ultimately defeating the states they fight. More centralized and integrated groups are more capable of allocating resources effectively, reducing principal-agent problems, and keeping lower-ranking members in line with the group’s broader objectives. By looking at a different dependent variable, however, my findings challenge conventional wisdom: groups with relatively less centralized command and control are just as likely to engage in sustained armed conflict than the most hierarchically structured organizations. Groups with more autonomous cells and specialized wings should still be able to launch a sustained insurgency, regardless of whether they end up beating the regime. Less centralization might make it harder for counterinsurgency forces to infiltrate and dismantle militant groups.

Competitive Environment

Competition for resources and manpower among rival constituent factions and other rebel groups is particularly crucial in the early phases of a violent conflict. Violence serves as an important signal of capabilities and resolves among groups competing for leadership of a particular constituency. Recent work highlights the importance of rival relations and internal movement structure to assess strategic success. In general, I find that more competitive militant environments also reduce the likelihood any particular group presents a major threat to the states they fight. This study also finds that the overwhelming majority of militant groups that engaged in sustained armed conflicts were the most dominant group in their environment around the time the group challenged the state. In the nascent stages of an insurgency, militant groups often have to consolidate rivals – whether by destructive campaigns or alliance formation – before emerging as the dominant organization and then taking on the regime.

Theoretical and Policy Implications

This study offers some implications for scholarship and policy, by examining an underexplored outcome of interest and addressing a selection bias prevalent across literature on political violence. It is important to study analytically distinct phases of armed conflict and differentiate between various militant group objectives (i.e. organizational, strategic) when evaluating success. Understanding this phenomenon is critical since groups that sustain military operations gain more influence and fundraising capabilities while further weakening the target state. Battlefield successes, in turn, encourage more recruitment and defections from rival groups. It is far more difficult for states to defeat a full-fledged insurgency than prevent a nascent insurrection from flourishing. There is no single theory that can explain particular militant group trajectories and counterinsurgency campaigns require context-specific analysis. But this paper presents generalizable empirical associations across diverse militant groups, while acknowledging the limits of large-n research, and identifies key cases for in-depth analysis by the author in subsequent work.


Michael Shkolnik is a Ph.D. Candidate at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He recently served as a senior adviser and scholar-in-residence with the Strategic Foresight unit in Canada’s foreign ministry, focusing on futures of terrorism and international security trends. In the past, Michael worked with security-related research institutes in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and Israel. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.

 You can follow him on Twitter:  @Shkolnik_M




ISA Preview #2: Energy-Security, Myths of Counter-Terrorism, and Terrorism Hoaxes

Michael Shkolnik and Uri Marantz, Causal Pathways of Resource Conflict and the Energy-Security Nexus: The Case of Egyptian-Israeli Relations

Why do some states conflict over energy resources while others cooperate? This paper expands Colgan’s (2013) causal pathways linking oil to international conflict by proposing similar mechanisms for natural gas. Egyptian-Israeli energy relations serve as an important case study since it demonstrates unique variation on the dependent variable, a rupture followed by a reversal of cooperative energy trading policies, especially when subject to stringent counterfactual analysis. Egyptian regime changes and political turmoil since 2011 have challenged the cold peace with Israel and provided an interesting opportunity to analyze the resource-based conflict dynamics of two Middle Eastern powers. As Islamist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula target gas pipelines from Egypt to Israel, Egypt’s desperate economic situation coupled with recent natural gas discoveries off Israeli shores have led to a reversal in the energy producer-consumer relationship between both states. The use of counterfactuals highlights new causal pathways for theorists to conceptualize dynamic energy relationships and reveals vital policy implications for national and regional leaders in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nicole Tisher, Debunking the Myth of Globalized Counter-Terrorism: How the Study and Practice of Counter-Terrorism Reify the State

Terrorism is frequently labeled a “globalized threat” in need of a “globalized response.” In spite of this common formulation, however, counterterrorism (CT) is not really “global,” nor is it meaningfully treated as such within academia. Instead, the very character of CT, and the academic methods applied to study it, both serve to buttress the role that states and their national interests play in countering terrorism. This paper first examines how academic research espouses a methodological nationalism that consistently positions the state at the core of CT activities; CT research does not meet the standards of theoretical or methodological globalism or transnationalism. Second, it demonstrates that this methodological nationalism in CT studies is not misplaced, due to CT’s offensive and defensive nature, and the factors considered when allocating resources between these two approaches. States’ national interests are embedded in the essence of CT activities, even when these do take on international or global dimensions. The paper concludes with implications for policy and theory of the blurring—or, at worst, conflation—of the “global” and the “transnational” in policy and academic discourse; and of privileging the “global” or “transnational” in discourse at the expense of the role and significance of the state.

Nicole Tisher, Characteristics of Terrorism Hoaxes and their Perpetrators

The academic literature on terrorism has failed to accord serious attention to terrorist hoaxes; where they are acknowledged (in terms of inducing fear and draining financial resources), they are subsequently discounted since they do not pose a serious threat of bodily harm or property damage. This paper reviews existing literature and available data to outline the contours of hoaxes. Hoaxes are understood as a low-resource mode of low-severity terrorism, whereby perpetrators: 1) use benign materials to give the impression that a terrorist act is, or has been, underway (hoax devices); 2) threaten a future terrorist act, without the intention of actually carrying out this act (hoax warnings); 3) claim responsibility for incidents they did not cause (hoax claims of responsibility); or 4) exploit false claims or staged activities as a means to facilitating an act of “serious” terrorism (instrumental hoaxes). Using data drawn primarily from ITERATE, the paper also provides descriptive statistics to delineate the scope and nature of terrorist hoax activities worldwide; present profiles of hoax perpetrators; and highlight substantial inconsistencies in the ITERATE dataset itself. It concludes with an assessment of potential contributions that serious attention to hoaxes can provide to broader terrorism studies theory, approaches, and debates.

Canada and Terrorism: quick reflections on information, speculation, and intelligence

By Jeremy Littlewood

We learnt quite a bit yesterday (October 23) about the attack in Ottawa on Wednesday. Noting as I did yesterday some positive aspects, the Press Conference mid-afternoon with the Chief of Ottawa Police and the Commissioner of the RCMP was quite enlightening: like others I’ll give a nod of appreciation to Commissioner Paulson for his remarks and information provided. That level of transparency – number of people now under investigation by RCMP as high risk travellers, dynamic nature of that ‘list’, the fact that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was not on that list, etc. – as well as the walk through, with video, of the arrival of Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill was a very welcome clarification of what is actually known at this time. Hopefully it will dampen the speculation that inevitably fills any vacuum. He, of course, left some details unclear and quite a few things unsaid, but I am not going to complain about that now.

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Terrorism in Canada: how to respond

By Jeremy Littlewood

Events in Canada in the last few days will change our understanding of the security situation and how we all – Parliamentarians, officials, citizens – respond to and manage it. Statements such as those from testimony earlier this month – the threat of terrorism is diffuse, complex and able to change rapidly – now have salience and more prominent meaning. As the Prime Minister noted in his statement over the next few days and weeks much that is unknown will become clearer. There will, of course, be a reaction on numerous levels, and necessarily so. How we react will have important implications for managing the threat from terrorism in the coming months and years.

We should first reflect on some positive aspects of the response to the attack in Ottawa. Overall, the system worked: individuals, authorities, and the bureaucracy reacted with some skill and considerable flexibility in a very confusing situation. The numerous responses from professionals and people caught in the downtown core, from the Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers in Parliament and staff, passers-by who aided Corporal Cirillo, police and authorities who responded quickly, MPs and their staff who remained calm, and the media for doing a collective good job on reporting events on TV, in e-print, and via social media. Watching Canada from the safety of my office in Ottawa efficiency, effectiveness and calmness were evident and Ottawa got through the day without hyperbole and fear-mongering.

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Finding ‘root causes’ of terrorism is the core of Canadian policy

As originally published in the Globe and Mail.

Justin Trudeau’s comments on the “root causes” of terrorism have sparked considerable debate in the media. The discussion has focused on narrow political point-scoring at the expense of deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

Mr. Trudeau’s observations were badly timed, spoken when Canadians, like their American neighbours, felt raw, exposed, and vulnerable. Still there is a valuable role for political leaders who provide that stabilizing viewpoint; seizing control of the narrative, rather than surrendering to it.

In contrast, Prime Minister Harper’s comments, with his calls for harsh punishment without any hope of more general understanding are unhelpful. They tap into and assuage that feeling of helpless rage, but offer nothing beyond vengeance as a solution.

Those who dismiss the “root causes” argument misunderstand both the scope of Canadian policy and the underlying causes of terrorism. Dealing with root causes is the stated policy of the government of Canada, as expressed in the words of former foreign minister Lawrence Cannon, and on Public Safety Canada’s (PSC) approach to counter violent extremism.

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The Multimedia Mess in Boston

Check out Prof. Saideman’s piece in the Globe and Mail on the challenges of following these events.


Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorism

This week the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) confirmed that a Canadian did in fact die during the In-Amenas attack in Algeria in January, although it refused to expand on whether the individual was a victim of the attack or part of the terrorist group that conducted the armed assault on the facility. Confirmation of a Canadian link to the Bulgarian bus bombing in 2012, conducted by Hezbollah according to the Government of Bulgaria, has also raised the spectre of Canadians fighting abroad and carrying out acts of terrorism. Last year the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service testified that between 45 to 60 Canadians are believed to have traveled abroad to support terrorism. It is probably only a matter of time before reports of Canadians active in Syria’s civil war emerge.

Syria, according to the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, is now the ‘top destination for jihadists anywhere in the world’ and that is beginning to have an effect on terrorism threat assessments. On March 13 The Netherlands raised its threat assessment on terrorism to ‘substantial’ from the previous ‘limited’ and reported that ‘[c]lose to a hundred individuals have recently left the Netherlands for various countries in Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria.’ Similarly, last week Der Spiegel ran a report on a German language video encouraging others to come to Syria to wage jihad: ‘You can fly from Germany to Syria…You can come here to wage jihad.’ Other reports in the European media suggest that extremists from across Europe are making their way to Syria.

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